Bangs Keep Olympia Punk Fresh

Female-led punk trio follow in footsteps of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.

The conundrum has become inevitable: Whenever Bangs guitarist Sarah Utter

sees a concert in her hometown of Olympia, Wash., that truly kicks out the

jams, she finds herself weighing her options -- stay or play?

"When I see a band that rocks, that I really love, I feel totally inspired,

just taken over by the music," said the 22-year-old singer and axe-slinger.

"I can't decide if I want to stay for the rest of the show or if I want to

run home and play guitar."

The sentiment says as much about Utter's infectious passion for music as it

does about the fruitful Olympia scene that gave rise to Bangs a year ago.

There's little doubt in the minds of locals that when the band (Utter, bass

player Maggie Vail and drummer Jesse Fox) hit the road for their first

U.S. tour in May and June, kids throughout the country will be faced with

the same stay-or-play dilemma.

Tiger Beat (Kill Rock Stars), Bangs' recently released debut album,

is the latest offering from the bountiful Olympia punk scene that in the

past decade or so has spawned such creative powers as Beat Happening,

Bikini Kill, Unwound and Sleater-Kinney. The freshman disc serves up 10

slices of pure guitar-pop stained with the sauntering vocals of Utter and

Vail.

All three Bangs were bred in Olympia, and thus more than a few of the

band's tracks take for their subjects the people and politics that color

the local scene.

On the stand-out cut "S.O.S.," for example, Utter belts her determination

not to become a poster child for any specious flavors of the month, such as

corporately heralded "Women In Rock" trends. "I don't want to be your

petty heartbreaker," she sings, "but I know that I'll never be/ that girl

on your turntable, that girl on your TV."

"Every cover of every major magazine was like, 'This is the year of women

in rock,' " Utter explained. "But it would always be like folk singers that

I didn't think offered anything new or interesting, like Fiona Apple or

Jewel. I just see all these people around me fall into this gross thing of

worshipping people like that. I fall into the category of women rockers,

but just because I'm a girl who plays music doesn't mean I want to be on

the cover of major magazines or in Spin all the time."

Other songs, meanwhile, revolve around various characters in the Oly scene.

The target of the venomous "He's a Groupie," for instance, is so obvious

to those around town that all Utter will say about the song is that she's

pledged to write an admiring paean to the same person in the future. She

will admit, however, that album-closer "Death By Guitar" (sample lyric: "On

a friendless night when the show was full/ You made me shake and then you

shook too") was sparked by C-Average six-stringer Jon Merithew.

By this point in its life, the Olympia music community has become quite

incestuous according to Vail, and no band proves her point more than her

own. All three musicians have logged time with other groups (Utter in the

Seductives, Vail with Bonnot Gang and Fox in Polecat), while Vail also

handles publicity for the local Kill Rock Stars label and Utter manages

radio promotion for Oly mainstay K Records.

Still, Vail characterizes the scene as close-knit rather than

claustrophobic. Like many musicians in the area, she took inspiration from

Bikini Kill's riot-grrrl punk example; of course, she had tighter

connections than most, since Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail is her older sister.

"I never really felt like I could play music until I saw her," said Maggie Vail,

23. "I always wanted to be in a band, but I never thought I could."

It's the kind of reaction that's common around town, and it still takes

over musicians like those in Bangs even as they pass on inspiration to the

new kids coming up.

"Watching him play, I just got a huge guitar crush," Utter said of "Death

By Guitar" subject Merithew. "Not like a crush crush, but a guitar

crush. I felt like a retarded little girl at an AC/DC show watching Angus

Young, but it was this guy that I know, right in front of me."